Poppers are an icon, a legend, the moment. Seriously, according to the New York Times, they’ve recently become a “party girl favourite” (a status they’ve enjoyed in the UK for ages, tbh). Here’s everything you need to know about this semi-legal bottled high that’s been hiding in plain sight for decades.
What are poppers?
Poppers are a liquid drug sold in small bottles all over the world. When you inhale their vapour, they give you an instant high that’s both relaxing and erotic: call it a sexy headrush. Poppers are especially popular with queer clubbers and MSM (men who have sex with men) who are about to bottom – more on this later – but anyone can take them. Honestly, a huff of poppers can really punch up a night out.
What do poppers do?
Poppers make your blood vessels dilate, which gives you that sexy headrush and relaxes your muscles. When your sphincter relaxes, it’s easier to take a dick in there, which is why poppers have become synonymous with anal sex.
“It’s not just that you’re more open after taking poppers, but also that you really, really want it,” says Adam Zmith, author of the brilliant book Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures. “And the same is true if you’re taking it in your vagina or throat. Poppers can really help you access your inner slut.”
Are poppers drugs?
Yes, but you don’t need a dealer to buy them. In the UK, they’re easy to find online or at your local sex shop. “Poppers feel naughty because they’ve historically been associated with gay sex, which used to be illegal in the UK and still is illegal in many countries around the world,” says Zmith. “But they also feel naughty because they have this sort of semi-legal status. They’re not seen as out and out ‘bad’ like taking a Class A drug, but they do make you feel like you’re doing something cheeky and a little bit transgressive.”
So, are poppers legal?
Technically yes, but it’s kind of complicated. “In the UK, you can legally buy and sell certain substances that we would nickname poppers, but they’re not called poppers on the bottle,” Zmith explains. Instead, they masquerade as leather cleaning products or “room aromas” with inescapably camp brand names like Iron Horse and Jungle Juice.
That’s because it’s illegal to sell poppers for human consumption; shops have to pretend they’re offering them to customers who want to freshen up a rank old leather jacket. “It’s this big open secret and that’s part of their inherent naughtiness and queerness,” says Zmith. “Poppers are everywhere, they’re ubiquitous, but we’re just keeping them on the DL.”
What are poppers made from?
Again, this is complicated and depends on which country you’re in. The first substance that became known as poppers was amyl nitrite, a drug originally developed to treat angina. Once public health bodies cottoned onto the fact that people were using it for pleasure, amyl nitrite was banned in both the US and UK. The same thing happened to butyl nitrite, a similar substance that manufacturers developed to mimic the head rush effect of amyl nitrite.
Over the decades, different countries have banned different kinds of poppers, but you can still buy amyl nitrite in France and butyl nitrite in many European countries. In the UK, when you pick up a bottle of poppers, it’s likely to contain one of the two P’s: pentyl nitrite or propyl nitrite. But according to Zmith, all of these substances are much of a muchness. They just feature “tiny tweaks to the same chemical formula that help the manufacturers to evade a particular piece of legislation”. Hey, you can’t keep a good capitalist down.
How long do poppers last?
After taking a bosh of poppers – yes, “bosh” is an acceptable synonym for “huff”– you’ll feel the effects within 15 seconds and enjoy a high of up to three minutes. Once opened, a bottle of poppers should stay potent for at least a month and possibly up to three, but remember to store them in a cool dry place. Your bedside table, for obvious reasons, is a perfect home for your poppers supply.
How do you take poppers?
Well, to paraphrase Dua Lipa, one sniff is all it takes. “I’m quite basic,” says Zmith. “I like holding one nostril closed and taking a good old huff on the other nostril – preferably while I’m in a club with my friends dancing to techno music.” Just don’t get the bottle too close to your nostrils. “Poppers are highly acidic and will burn your skin if you sniff them too close to the nose,” warns Ian Howley, CEO of health and wellbeing charity LGBT HERO.
Zmith says that some poppers connoisseurs like to pour the liquid into a bottle of Coke, give it a good shake, then let the vapour rise up with the bubbles. Others advocate for the so-called “sock method”, which involves dripping some poppers onto a sock, then stuffing it in your mouth so you can inhale the vapour.
The important thing to remember is this: never, ever, drink poppers out of the bottle. They will burn your mouth and could well kill you.
Can you die from poppers?
Yes, but it’s extremely rare. Over the years, there have been cases of something called “sudden sniffing death syndrome”, where people have died after poppers caused them to develop an abnormal heart rhythm. According to the Office for National Statistics, between 2001 and 2020, there were 25 deaths in England and Wales where alkyl nitrites (i.e. poppers) were mentioned on the death certificate.
Though poppers are relatively low-risk, it’s important to bosh them responsibly. “You shouldn’t use poppers while drinking alcohol or taking viagra because both alcohol and viagra increase the pressure on your heart,” says Howley. “So when you add poppers into the mix, you’re placing even more pressure on the heart. For this reason, if you have any heart problems whatsoever, it’s best to talk with your GP before you use them.”
Which are the strongest poppers?
To an extent, this is a matter of personal preference. “Different people have different views on this and I’ve definitely experienced different strengths,” says Zmith. “I think it’s just one of those things where you have to try different brands and find the one that works best for you.”
However, Zmith also warns not to be swayed by claims made on the bottle. “There are brands that will say they’re ‘extra-extra-strong’ or whatever, but in reality, most poppers contain a very, very similar chemical substance,” he says. “At the same time, manufacturers are really vague about exactly what’s in them, and that’s partly because they’re not a fully regulated product.”
What's a good substitute for poppers?
If you like to bosh poppers before bottoming, Howley recommends good old-fashioned foreplay as an alternative. “All forms of foreplay are an excellent relaxation method: kissing, licking, rimming, edging and playing with sex toys are a great way to turn yourself on and take the anxiety out of anal sex,” Howley says. “But if you’re having quick sex and don’t want to use poppers, learning breathing exercises that help move oxygen around your body can help to relax your muscles.”
Given that the term “poppers o’clock” has become shorthand for any club banger that recreates the rush of alkyl nitrite, you might like to play a few of these at full pelt. I’d recommend Some Kinda Rush by Booty Luv, Take It Like a Man by Cher – she knew what she was doing there – and literally any Freemasons remix. This one’s a failsafe, though.